The Infuriating History of White Women Voting Against Women’s Rights
Since the 80s, people have thought that women, as a unit, vote more liberally than men. While this is generally true, white women have a storied history of defying this trend, voting for Republican candidates against their own best interests.
Photo by Mark Wallheiser via Getty
The 2016 presidential election results were supposed to be history-making. A week before voting day, NPR ran a story with headline "The Gender Gap In This Election Could Be The Biggest In At Least 60 Years," prognosticating that women could vote more liberally in 2016 than they had ever before. Like much of the pre-election coverage in left-leaning outlets, the article had a hopeful message: Hillary Clinton, our first female presidential candidate, would likely become our first female president, ushered into power with the vociferous support of women.
According to three national polls cited in the NPR article, it was clear that "women [preferred] Clinton...while men [preferred] Trump." Since 1980, a higher proportion of women have gone to the polls than men in every presidential election, and exit polls have consistently shown that women voted far more heavily Democratic in each one.
In this year's election, it was estimated that the "gender gap"—the difference in the percentage of women who vote for any given candidate when compared with men—could total a whopping 25 points. The article wasn't far off. According to Clinton super PAC pollster Geoff Garin, the 2016 gender gap was 24 points wide—a number that, read alone, conveys that women in general preferred Clinton. Overall, according to the National Election Pool, 54 percent of women voters filled in the bubble next to Clinton-Kaine. Forty-two percent picked Trump-Pence.
But that statistic does not show that 93 percent of black women who voted supported Clinton, that 67 percent of Hispanic women who voted supported Clinton, and that 78 percent of other non-white women who voted supported Clinton. It also doesn't show that just 43 percent of white women who voted supported Clinton, while the majority—53 percent—supported Donald Trump, a blatant misogynist, racist, and xenophobe.
For the past 35-plus years, politicians, the media, and many US citizens have clung to the myth that the "women's vote" is a potent political force, one that skews liberal. In reality, though, women are not, and never have been, a unified voting bloc.
The concept of a tangible "gender gap" between male and female voters dates back to 1980. While women and men both favored Reagan, women did so by just one percentage point, making them notably more Democratic-leaning than men. This gap became an matter of pressing concern after the 1982 midterm election, when Republicans lost 26 seats in the House: According to historian Meg Jacobs, Republican advisor Lee Atwater wrote 19-page memo to senior White House staffers days after the midterm losses, in which he warned that the gender gap was "one of the most severe challenges facing the Administration," something that "could lock the GOP into permanent minority status."
Republican advisor Lee Atwater wrote that the gender gap was "one of the most severe challenges facing the Administration."
As time passed, he only became more anxious. During the 1984 race, the National Organization for Women announced that they backed Democratic candidate Walter Mondale, and local chapters of the organization started protesting Reagan around the country. The Republican candidate and his team couldn't wait any longer—they had to come up with a way to make their politics palatable to women.
This wouldn't be easy, as Reagan's policies were far from female-friendly. His 1981 Economic Recovery Act enforced tax cuts and budget cuts in nearly every government department, which badly damaged the lower class—and in 1979, 62.4 percent of service workers were female, according to Jill Rubery's Women and Recession. In addition, as president, Reagan had taken no action to close the gender pay gap at a time when women were making between 59 to 63 percent of their male counterpart's salaries; he opposed the Equal Rights Amendment; he proposed a Human Life Amendment, which would've banned abortion, IUDs, and some forms of birth control pills; and he once said the working wife "threatens the very structure of family life itself."
To understand the elusive "woman's vote," Reagan's team spent a significant amount of time and resources studying women's political interests: In 1985, Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin told the Washington Post that they had polled 45,000 potential female voters about which issues mattered most to them, coming to a truly shocking conclusion: "We realized all women aren't the same," he said.
As such, Wirthlin's strategy involved dividing women, as a whole, into 64 categories based on their marital status, age, and employment status. (Notably, race went unmentioned.) After more research, the dozens of categories were condensed into eight groups, given names like "Betty" and "Carolyn," and then targeted according to the voting issues they prioritized, such as an improved minimum wage or education. The "Helen" group, which represented single, unemployed women under 25, was Reagan's toughest sell; conversely, the Alices, who were young and employed, tended to have more faith in the GOP candidate.
Ultimately, Reagan and Wirthlin identified three groups of women were as the most persuadable and therefore the most deserving of their time: single working women, employed married women, and elderly or widowed women. The strategy worked, and in 1984, Reagan was elected president, again with a majority of women's votes. As a surprisingly prescient New York Times op-ed from that year put it: "Even though the attitudes on public policies of a majority of American women are generally more progressive than men's, it should not be assumed that women are motivated in elections by a cohesive ideology that arms them against demagoguery."
In courting the "woman's vote" over the past few decades, politicians have consistently based their targeted campaigns around the women they're trying to win over, focusing on specific demographics. Bill Clinton had his "soccer moms," or the politically uninvolved, middle-class suburban women who drove their beautiful children to soccer practice in minivans while still finding time to get dinner on the table every night. Sarah Palin went after the evolved form of the soccer moms, what she called "hockey moms," who were "more decisive [voters]: the pro-life, red meat [Republicans]," according to a Forbes article.
Often, the opposing candidates focus on one group because they find it unproductive to go after the same demographic as their opponent. In the 2004 election, for example, George W. Bush appealed to the "security moms," the white, wealthy married women who worried about their children's safety in a post-9/11 world, by saying that he would protect them from terrorism. Democratic candidate John Kerry, according to Bush, would never know how to keep families safe. Conversely, Kerry emphasized domestic issues like health care and equal pay to appeal to less affluent undecided voters. After Bush won, articles circulated with a shared theme: He won in part because he had captured the women's vote. Security moms were scared about their children's safety; Bush assuaged their fears.
According to Juliet Williams, a political theorist and gender studies professor at UCLA, this is a fairly specious assessment. As a concept, she notes, the "women's vote" erases differences between populations with vastly different lived experiences and political needs. "The idea that a body of people as large as [women] as a kind of unified mass is absurd," she tells Broadly. "When we're talking about the 'women's vote,' it's very rare we're talking about issues on top of the agenda for women of color, poor women, and LGBT women."
In fact, while women in general tend to lean liberal and have done so for decades, the majority of white women have voted for the Republican presidential candidate in every election since 2004, according to the Presidential Gender Watch. Bush won 55 percent in that first year; John McCain earned 55 percent in 2008; Mitt Romney won 56 percent in 2012. Still, upon hearing this year's election results, according to a Gallup poll, the majority of Clinton's voters were angry, afraid, and even devastated. All voters—even Trump's—were surprised.
Of course, pundits saw the women's vote as especially important this election for an obvious reason: Trump is an open misogynist who proudly supports anti-woman policies, and Clinton was the first woman to have ever won the presidential nomination of a major party. This, too, brings up echoes of 1984: Reagan's opponent, Walter Mondale, had named Geraldine Ferraro, a New York State Representative who was notorious for being outspoken in her advocacy for women's rights, as his running mate, making her the first-ever female vice presidential candidate to run on a major party platform. This was meant to be an appeal to women, but ultimately it proved ineffective.
As the first female vice president candidate, Ferraro wore her gender on her sleeve but couldn't acknowledge it—she was meant to court female voters by virtue of being a woman, not by speaking to the specific issues that women face. "She was expected to bring in the women's vote but quietly, indirectly, without further developing a consciousness among women of their sex-class status," Zillah R. Eisenstein writes in The Female Body and The Law. Mondale's campaign essentially banked on the belief that as a woman, Ferraro was inherently a symbol of "women's issues," like abortion, pay equality, and parental leave, which they figured was a great way to get women to back the party; it was also a great way to align themselves with those issues without explicitly addressing them in their campaign.
When we're talking about the 'women's vote,' it's very rare we're talking about issues on top of the agenda for women of color, poor women, and LGBT women.
At the Democratic National Convention in July 1984, Ferraro stood in front of a crowd and said, "by choosing an American woman to run for our nation's second-highest office, you send a powerful signal to all Americans... if we can do this, we can do anything." It was, apparently, a signal that didn't resonate with the American people.
"Feminists had to face the fact that most women apparently preferred Reagan, though Reagan had spent the last four years trying to run back the clock on women's rights," Flora Davis writes in Moving the Mountain: The Women's Movement in America Since 1960, "while Democrat Walter Mondale not only supported those rights but had chosen a woman as his running mate."
And after this year's results election results, piece after piece came out with a similar take on the same message: How could the majority of white women pick a misogynist over an actual woman? "Dear Fellow White Women: We F**ked This Up," read a headline on the Huffington Post, Slate went with "White Women Sold Out the Sisterhood and the World by Voting for Trump," and the New York Times ran the more straightforward "More white women voted for Donald Trump than for Hillary Clinton."
As the exit polls plainly show, the majority of white women don't consider themselves sisters with the non-white, class-separated, LGBTQ female voters; instead, many of these women identify more closely with white men. In an article in the Nation, Joan Walsh argues that Clinton's loss can come down a multitude of reasons: that she didn't paint herself as the "economic change agent" that white working-class women wanted, that she was too "dreamy" and not "punchy" enough, and that ultimately, many white women either hold racist views or tacitly support them.
Clinging to the idea of gender as a discrete, unifying factor actively erases other—often far more salient—social realities. "The truth is that there is a gender gap," Seltzer writes in Sex as a Political Variable. "Women do differ from men in their views on the issues and in their voting behavior...[but] focusing narrowly on the gender gap and being obsessed with differences between women and men can obscure the deeper divisions within the US electorate that the gender gap reflects."
As Williams argues in a blog post written after the election results, the dominant media narrative leading up to November 8 had centered on angry white men, who were believed to be Trump's most ardent supporters, motivated by a desire to regain and reaffirm their dominance over marginalized groups. "This story made sense, except that it failed to account for the formidable political power of all the mothers and wives and daughters living alongside those angry white men," she says. "Just because some of those angry white people also happen to be women doesn't mean they should have been written off or taken for granted—or that their votes wouldn't count just as much as their male counterparts' surely did."